Saturday, June 24, 2017

What Does the Real Venice Look Like?

A central paradox of Venice is that the very sights and places universally considered to be the most representative of the city, the most quintessentially Venetian, often have the least actual Venetian life left in them. There are times, for example, when I've walked out of our apartment near the Rialto fish market and encountered anywhere from 30 to 50 camera-toting or luggage-pulling tourists before spotting the first resident--even as I make my way down calli that epitomize what people think of when they think of Venice.

How long has it been since any Venetians took their evening stroll (or passeggiata) through Piazza San Marco? It was the place to be seen even during Austrian occupation, as William Dean Howells recounted in the early 1860s, and I think it remained so to a lesser extent even into the days of Jan (then James) Morris at the end of the 1950s. But the Piazza and the area all around it are now occupied more absolutely by tourists (in their hotels and B&Bs, both legal and illegal) than the mighty Austrians ever imagined possible.

A friend once told me about the year he spent living just off beautiful Campiello San Vidal at one end of the Accademia Bridge. What could be more picturesquely Venetian, he thought--before he moved in.

But he said the only neighbor he had during his dispiriting time there was an accountant whose office was just down the calle from his apartment. Otherwise, he lived in a ghost town, except for the occasional tourist drifting through, or some second- or third-home owners who'd show up for the Feast of Redentore or some other weekend now and again. He was happy to move to a less picturesque but more populated area of Venice when his lease was up.

Of course the absence of local life has spawned its own commercial opportunities and sales pitches beyond merely the tourist-rentals that contribute to the emptiness. Guidebooks, guides, tours, and, yes, blogs like this one promise to lead you to the dwindling number of sites where Venetians can still be observed in their native habitat. Everyone is looking for leads to unknown or hidden Venice, a Venice off the beaten path, or the real Venice.

Then there are others of us who pride ourselves in being to sniff out on our own local enclaves in even the most over-run of tourist destinations.

What do we look for? Well, language, is an obvious sign, and we'd listen for the sound of Venetian. Activities are another. But not the picture postcard activities of gondoliere or fishmonger or glass blower, but the everyday ones of parents or grandparents taking their children to school or picking them up.

At other times, dress can serve as clues.

Though this method can lead to some questionable conclusions.

For example, I usually motor our little boat down the Grand Canal without attracting any notice. But the other day when the sun was especially brutal I resorted to wearing a rather rustic straw hat and found I'd suddenly become picturesque in the eyes of any number of visitors. I couldn't pass a crowded vaporetto without finding a couple of cameras aimed at me.

Here was a real Venetian sight!

Though the lone element that qualified me as such--the only difference from how I usually puttered down the Grand Canal in our 6 hp outboard--was a hat I'd bought from a cheap tourist stall in Croatia while on vacation there, which had been made in China. 

Perhaps what I'm ultimately thinking about here is the way in which we travel in order to see things--but rarely think much about how we are actually and actively looking for certain things.

Or, to put it another way, is it possible to see what we're not looking for?

If I remember correctly this is a central theme in Proust's In Search of Lost Time--a novel all about memory that I can only remember, as it's been in storage in Brooklyn for the past 6 years. According to that book a certain place--and sometimes only the name of a certain place--has magical associations for us and we go there looking to find, or re-find them.

We may not even feel that we've really been in Venice till we capture (and post on social media!) our own image of, say, that much-seen view of gondolas moored along the molo near the Palazzo Ducale, with the church of San Giorgio Maggiore all majestic in the background.

A bored gondolier leaning his stripe-shirted torso against the parapet of a bridge is the very image of Venice.

However, a Bangladeshi hawking splat toys in front of that very same parapet is not.

In the terms of my last post such a street vendor may be one of the elements we leave out of the picture of Venice we're constantly composing in our minds--and composing far less consciously than any painter composes the views he or she is painting of the city.

Insofar as such a vendor suggests intractable questions about, say, immigration and acculturation at play both in Venice and beyond, he is rather too real.

The real Venice we're looking for wears an instantly recognizable costume--each element of which we can now buy from stores in the historic center and is emblazoned with the new logo of the gondolier's association, attesting to its authenticity.

An elaborate taxonomy of touristic discernment could probably be plotted out according to the type of subjects considered photo-worthy by visitors. Some people might focus on the most famous sights (Piazza San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, the Rialto Bridge); a tendency probably more common in the era of film cameras. Others might limit themselves to what strikes them as the obscure and little seen. Some might shoot, say, gondoliers and glass blowers but not work boat drivers and taxi drivers; while others, reasoning that the latter two groups play a larger part in the actual economic life of the city, would do the inverse. Some people might focus on the colors and textures of the city, abstracted from any larger sense of the whole. Others might become "meta-tourists" and take as their subject other tourists and the tourism industry itself.  

Some people might do a little of all of the above, and more. And some, myself among them, might take an image like the one at the top of the page and not be quite sure what they're doing.

Has the depopulation of the historic center reached such a point that the "realest" Venice are those areas of town where the population is densest, regardless of whether they look much like Venice or not?

Or is isolation or boredom or fatigue without a recognizably Venetian backdrop too much like the isolation or boredom or fatigue we've left our own home town in order to escape to be worth a picture?

Is the above image one of real Venice or too real Venice?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Pretty As a Picture--But Not Quite

Passing through Campo Santa Maria Formosa the other day I was reminded of how painters make the scenes they depict at least as much as they find them. The English painter Ian Layton, whose work you see above (and which you can also see more of on Facebook), was kind enough to talk to me about his process, the differences between working in oil versus working in water colors, and everything else I could throw at him.

Of course some people are still rather scandalized to find that Canaletto made substantial alterations in the scenes of Venice he was supposedly only reproducing, but his departures from things as they strictly were to things as he thought they looked best on his canvases are a matter of course for painters to a greater or lesser degree--as you can see above by comparing Layton's work-in-progress to the scene beyond it.

That people might value an image of the thing more than they valued the thing itself, might confuse an image (or even words!) with reality, dismayed Plato no end, and has continued to drive people and some religions to distraction ever since.

But living in Venice one is reminded that if reality (however you define that) ever had even the slimmest chance of holding its own against images our digital age has finished it off for good. Capturing an image now precedes--if not entirely supersedes--seeing the thing itself, as one can observe most dramatically in Giotto's great Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Aware that they're allowed only 15 minutes inside the small precious space, smart phones are set to snapping before their owners' eyes can possibly take in any of the scene.

But even without a smart phone or camera or paint brush in hand, I think we tend to constantly construct or compose the scenes before us. Indeed, in a city of such overwhelmingly abundant and artful details we have no choice. On any given day I suspect that that tourist souvenir cart to the right of the photo above is almost as entirely absent from my perception of Campo Santa Maria Formosa as it is from Layton's canvas. We all have a certain Venice in mind, a Venice we'd like to see, a pleasing or maybe just tolerable Venice, and we frame our vision of it, with or without a camera, accordingly.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Look, Ma, No Hands!" Or, Getting Cheeky on the Grand Canal

I've written before on this blog that it seems to me that Venetians never look so pleased as when they're piloting their own boats. The images that accompany today's post do nothing to change my mind about this, but they do suggest, perhaps, a type of pleasure I hadn't even considered when I typed my initial remark.

As you can see, it's common for the drivers of mototopi, or large work boats, to steer them with--well, with what you can see for yourself. And even after living here for 6 years, and in spite of its indisputable practicality, it still surprises me.

Of course my 9-year-old son, who aspires to be a mototopo driver himself--and studies and mimics their every move as other kids around the world study and mimic the moves of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi--finds nothing at all curious about this way of steering. Rather, the only question in his mind is whether he'd prefer the smaller type of handle you see above or the type with the long upright extension, as below, against which you can lean back for maximum comfort while driving (note the black padding taped around the upright in the image below).  

At the end of a work day I've seen drivers reclining against (and upon) this latter type of tiller looking quite contented indeed.  

In any case, this is one of those cultural differences between us that I think best to let pass without much comment. I wonder, though, if it would considered acceptable for women mototopi drivers to steer in this way.

But as I've never seen a woman piloting a mototopo here, there's no way of knowing. 

Thunderstorm Over Grand Canal, Tonight

Monday, June 12, 2017

Local Heroes and the Question of Local Autonomy

Jane da Mosto receives the Premio Osella from the president of the Comitato Festa della Sensa, Giorgio Suppiej, as Mayor Gianluigi Brugnaro applauds at far right

Two weekends ago Venice celebrated La Festa della Sensa, or its traditional ritual of "marrying" the sea, and as part of the weekend's festivities three Venetian residents were awarded the Premio Osella d'Oro della Sensa. The award--named after the gold coin once given out to senators by the doge--was intended to recognize the contribution of either institutions or individuals which/who have enriched the city through their efforts in the spheres of culture, crafts or commerce.

The honorees were:

Jane da Mosto, co-founder of the non-profit community organization We Are Here Venice and co-author and editor, respectively, of two books to which I've frequently referred in this blog: The Science of Saving Venice and The Venice Report. (I read and recommended those books before I ever met Jane herself, but since doing so I've contributed photos to Jane and the group for use on their website and in other materials.) 

Saverio Pastor addressed the audience after receiving the Premio
Saverio Pastor, master craftsman of Venetian forcole (oarlocks) and remi (oars), long-time proponent of the culture of Venetian rowing and of Venetian artisans in general, and founder of El Felze, which his website describes as "an association of craftsmen involved in the construction of the gondola and its fittings, and articles of clothing for gondoliers."

Michele Bugliesi, Chancellor of the Università Ca' Foscari, whose most recent achievement--and I think it's a significant one--was the inauguration of the International Center for the Humanities and Social Change on May 17, an interdisciplinary research program with centers in Europe and America devoted to the effects of globalization on contemporary society.

In a city whose resident culture is literally fighting for its life in the face of mass tourism, irresponsible "development", and the ongoing, life-sucking 6 billion euro swindle that are the forever inoperable MOSE water gates, such residents and their efforts deserve not just to be celebrated but held up as examples of the kinds of things that must be done to keep the city alive. 

Ca' Foscari Chancellor Michele Bugliesi addresses the audience
Alas, on the official website of the Comune di Venezia, and in local new reports, the focus was elsewhere. In the former case, a single sentence refers to the award, without bothering even to name its recipients. Then, that perfunctory bit of information done (the use of "però" in the following sentence is interesting), it boasts of the "increasing number of people" who come to Venice to view the marriage ceremony to the sea on the following day.

Because, after all, if there's one thing Venice really needs it's more tourists.

At the award ceremony itself, held in the Palazzo Ducale, Mayor Luigi Brugnaro's focus was also elsewhere. This year's establishment of a "twin city" relationship between Venice and l'Unione Montana Agordina in the Dolomites served as an opportunity for him to lay out a far-reaching vision of a Venice whose "brand" (his word) would extend to the mountains. Of course, as he noted, there had always been an important relationship between the Venice and the mountains, from which comes the city's water and raw building materials.

But as he talked about Venice as "a great metropolitan area" stretching from the sea to the mountains, an area whose economic development should be conceived of as a unified bloc, I couldn't help remembering passages from Salvatore Settis's book If Venice Dies.

In the same chapter in which Settis refers to the "cargo cult" of those who mindlessly "venerate the absolute power of the market," he brings up the following points about those who like to envision Venice as doing little more than imparting its commodity "aura" (or Brugnaro's "brand") to a "great metropolitan area.":

1) While discussing Pierre Cardin's now scuttled plans to build a massive skyscraper on the mainland near the lagoon, Settis writes that the "real issue facing all Venetians, the regeneration of the the former industrial zone of Marghera, has been hijacked to justify real estate speculation. As part of the bargain [of Cardin's proposed residential/commercial high-rise], a new highway planned in the vicinity would modernize Venice by making it look like a Chinese or American metropolis."

Cardin's skyscraper plans may have collapsed beneath widespread public outrage, but similar developments on the mainland are still very much in the works. And perhaps it might be worth noting here that Brugnaro himself is said to own a great deal of property in Marghera.

2) Settis also notes that "Rethinking transit connections in order to save Venice from isolation"--a key point of Brugnaro's at the awards ceremony--"is yet another favorite theme of the high priests of the cargo cult. The Futurists thought they could fill the Grand Canal and pave it over, while their heirs today are planning a huge metropolitan area that would turn the cities of Venice, Padua, and Treviso into a single megapolis."

The "cargo cultists" singled out by Settis like to depict their projects as "sustainable", "green" and the foundations of a "new community"--notions you'll also find in the account of Brugnaro's speech linked to above. And both Settis's "cargo cultists" and Brugnaro inevitably present their favored projects as the inevitable, absolutely necessary, and only possible alternative.  (Brugnaro says: "Solo così possiamo costruire una comunità, progetto che richiede un tempo lungo superando i campanilismi e guardando alle capitali del mondo, perché questo è il senso della nostra città, senza piangersi addosso.")

To entertain any ideas other than those put forth by Venice's non-resident, mainland mayor is to be nothing but a weak-minded, sentimental crybaby (that "senza piangersi addosso" phrase above). 

But of course there are other ideas out there, put forth by people like Settis himself, and community groups such as Jane da Mosto's We Are Here Venice and Generazione 90, which are committed to maintaining Venice as something more than merely a "luxury brand." Indeed, Brugnaro's obsession with the notion of "luxury" and "luxury brands" seems to have come to its full rancid flowering in the current Biennale's embarrassing Venice Pavilion, whose very theme is "Luxus", and whose gaudy "trash" commodities on display are better suited to a suburban outlet mall or a cruise ship port than an international festival of art. 

And, in fact, an alternative vision of Venice's possible future is likely to be put to the vote this fall, in the form of a referendum proposing that Venice and Mestre be separated into two distinct cities--as they were before Mussolini bound them into a single comune

This topic merits a post of its own, which I'll soon put up. But, in short, the idea is that the issues facing Venice are quite different from those facing Mestre, and that each place would benefit from having its own mayor and administration. At present, the majority of the electorate whose votes determine the fate of Venice live on the mainland--as does Brugnaro himself (the first Venice mayor ever born and raised outside of the lagoon).

Indeed, the very stridency of Brugnaro's remarks during the awards ceremony may have been inspired by his awareness of this proposed referendum--which he adamantly opposes, and which he has attempted (and thus far failed) to prevent from taking place.

All of which background made for a rather loaded if good-natured exchange of glances between award-recipient and mayor during Jane da Mosto's short acceptance speech for the Premio Osella. "Given the complexity of the place we live in," da Mosto said (originally in Italian): 
one of my main aims is to encourage citizens to understand the factors that determine our quality of life in the city, together with the limits of what's possible--in economic, social and environmental terms. In this way we will all be able to participate more knowledgeably, and more effectively, in political choices.

We are here Venice is not a factory for trouble-makers [fabbrica di "rompiscatole": literally, "box breakers," but a common euphemism for "ball busters"--and the point at which da Mosto and Brugnaro exchanged smiles] but an incubator for citizens that adds value to their experience, understanding, and knowledge. Even if little is left of Venice (and the need to re-grow the population is urgent*), its value is still immeasurable in terms of history, culture, civilisation and, above all, its innate resilience.

Venice is often considered a mirror on the world. Many of its problems are also found on a global scale. We have the privilege of living here and seeing everything close-up. If we don't manage to save Venice, how will the world save itself?
Even as the Comitato Festa della Sensa chose to recognize three Venetian residents for their efforts on behalf of a living Venice, the attention of the mayor and comune's publicity department was, as usual, elsewhere.

The referendum to separate Venice and Mestre is the best--and perhaps last--chance for the residents of Venice to once again have a say in the future of their city. The ceremony that took place in the grand Sala dello Scrutinio of the Palazzo Ducale on 27 May during the Festa della Sensa reminded me of everything at stake in that referendum. I'll post more information on it soon.  

*While campaigning for mayor Brugnaro promised to increase the resident population of Venice by 30,000 people. During his two years in office the city has in fact lost 1,600 residents. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Bottoms Up on the Grand Canal, This Afternoon

A capsized kayaker is towed to safety by a passing group of rowers with a small outboard motor on their boat

The 43rd Vogalonga, a non-competitive 30 km row around the Venetian lagoon, takes place tomorrow, but the rowers were already out in force today. Initiated as a distinctly local reassertion of the importance of traditional Venetian oar-powered boats and an objection to the motorboat waves that were battering the foundations of the city, the Vogalonga has become an international celebration of the oar, with participants coming from far and wide and taking to the water in all styles of boats (as you can see in images from previous year's editions: 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2013).

Various types of rowed boats passed up and down the Grand Canal all day today, multi-person crews and single and double kayakers, all of them looking adept, as you'd expect of anyone about to undertake an outing of tomorrow's length. But traffic on the Grand Canal can create difficulties for even more experienced rowers, as became evident when a kayaker found himself upended by the wake of a passing vaporetto in the center of the Grand Canal.

Fortunately, at that moment traffic in that part of the canal was sparse and the kayaker was quickly towed by a passing crew to the safe port, or rather, portico, of Ca' D'Oro. If it had been a work day, or even a typical Saturday afternoon (as today is part of the extended holiday of the Festa della Republica), the kayaker could easily have found himself in much more trouble.

The city has implemented regulations forbidding the use of kayaks, standup paddle boards, canoes, and dragon boats in the canals and most rii (small side canals) from 8 am to 3 pm on weekdays and from 8 am to 1 pm on Saturdays. A wise decision, I think, based upon what I personally witnessed in the days when a kayak rental outfit right near the Rialto Bridge was renting kayaks to absolutely anyone--including rank beginners--and sending them out into the waterways with a useless water-proof map.

This afternoon provided yet another reminder, of the sort that periodically occurs here, that Venice is not a theme park or play land: something that both visitors and city officials would do well to keep in mind.

Ca' D'Oro must qualify as one of the world's most beautiful boat houses

Disrobing in the historic center, much less in one of the city's great buildings, is generally looked down upon by Venetians--but that rarely seems to stop visitors

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Some Reflections on Venetian Reflections

A rare unruffled view of one of the city's famous sites, the church of I Frari

Still waters almost never run deep in Venice. This is not intended as a metaphor about its residents but as a simple, literal statement about its canals.

The canals that are deep here, such the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal, are never still; and those side canals (or rii, actually) that are sometimes still, are never deep. But what strikes me lately is how rarely even those side canals are actually still. They're almost always rippled at least a bit by the tide coming in or going out, by a breeze, by a gondola or small motor boat, or battered (along with the ancient foundations of canal-side buildings) by a mototopo (work boat) or water taxi.

On the very rare occasions when the water really is still you get a view of the city that differs as greatly from the ordinary as the city in daylight differs from your perception of it at night, or in winter from summer. On any given day, in any season, you can take up your favorite position in the city and watch your view change with the changing light. This transformation, effected only by light, is one of the most celebrated in the vast literature of Venice.

But, as far as I know, there's no telling when you'll happen upon the perfectly still water in the side canals in which the city is almost perfectly mirrored, with just the slightest changes in detail and color that make the image all the more picturesque, like an old photographic plate. If it's possible to predict such still water by reference to tidal forecasts I'm not aware of how.

And I suppose it's this unpredictability that makes the experience so striking, even when--or especially when--you live here full time. You turn a corner along your usual route and you see something completely different, without even quite knowing what's changed at first. Struck by it, you hope to encounter the same view the next day, and the next, and the next, but the water on those days is rippled, the images wavering or multi-faceted almost beyond recognition--which is nice in itself, but not what you were hoping to find. After a certain point you give up on ever seeing the water just as it was that one time. And perhaps you never do. But in an entirely different part of town, where and when you don't expect it, you happen upon such still water again, and the experience is just a surprising and striking as it was the other time or times. Maybe more so, if you'd given up hope in the mean time.

This, too, is not intended as metaphorical, but feel free to read it however you like.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The End of the Rainbow, This Evening

I suppose it should come as no surprise that it ends at Ca' D'Oro: if not a pot of gold, at least a palazzo of one (which may be even better).   

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Touchy Feely in a Big Way on the Grand Canal

Lorenzo Quinn's piece "Support" was installed Thursday in the Grand Canal in front of the Hotel Ca' Sagredo and is sure to receive a good deal of attention for as long as it's up--not least of all because it functions well as a backdrop for selfies (perhaps the main criterion by which art is judged these days).

The giant hands of this work may remind some readers of Quinn's last work to be seen in Venice. Originally displayed during the 2011 Biennale it had an extended run among the fork lifts and trash bins and grocery pallets alongside the Canale Scomenzera, where it sat, seemingly forgotten, well through 2012 and beyond.

For more about this current work, go to the website of the artist's gallery here, where any questions you may have about its significance are answered.

If you take the above website at its word, Lorenzo Quinn has created a large sculptural emblem. Like the famous anchor and dolphin emblem used by the ground-breaking Venetian printer Aldo Manuzio, for example, or the crossed pair of hands you'll see engraved on the walls around the church of San Francesco della Vigna, these two large hands represent clearly delineated (if broad) meanings. "The hands" we are told, "symbolise tools that can both destroy the world, but also have the capacity to save it." 

Moreover, we are told that "By installing Support in Venice, Quinn draws attention to the delicate existence of humans and society against the force of nature in today’s climate of change. The work generates an instinctive and immediate understanding of the environmental impact for places such as Venice. The hands symbolise the role people must play in supporting Venice’s unique world heritage – it is our duty to save the ‘witnesses of the Past’ who can only survive with our help."

This climate change angle has already been repeated by a number of media outlets, but after looking at the work itself, as I have done every day for the last 4 days since it was installed, I'm still not sure what in the work specifically suggests climate change. Given the emblematic inclination of the work, wouldn't the hands need to appear to be lifting the Ca' Sagredo Hotel above the canal water in order to suggest the "environmental impact for places such as Venice [of climate change]"?

Or perhaps the giant hands should form a barrier between the hotel and the encroaching tide....

But this might call MOSE to mind, the system of flood gates that are supposed to protect the lagoon from the highest tides rushing in from the Adriatic. Well over 6 billion euros have been spent on them (at least 20% of which has been siphoned off by corruption) and, long overdue and way over budget, their operation date has recently been pushed back yet again: this time to 2021.

And perhaps this begins to get at the kinds of things that trouble me about this work.

For as far as I can see, this large piece has nothing to contribute to either the discussion of climate change and its effects on Venice nor the type of support that Venice actually lacks.

On the contrary, as far as I can see, it mystifies both issues.

The billions of euros that Venice has received to help it combat the effects of climate change have been shamefully, criminally and incompetently used and abused.

Meanwhile, funding for the city's vital services--education, health care facilities, senior care, etc--have been cut.

The resident population continues its precipitous decline, while the number of hotels and other types of tourist accommodation skyrocket.

Indeed, my first sight of the giant hands on barges in the Grand Canal made me hope they might be installed in a way that would call attention to how the privatization of palazzi here, their change of use from municipal functions into hotels, had turned Venice's famous waterway into something like a giant Monopoly board.

If anything, one might argue that hotels such as the one toward which Quinn's giant hands extend themselves, have received far too much "support" from local governments, at the expense of support for residents.

Or, again, that "support" for the edifices of Venice has never been lacking, but resident life has been left to collapse. 

Since Ruskin's time, then again since the great flood of 1966, there have been repeated calls of "support" for Venice. It is a cliché, and never more so than when issued in the most general terms. What Venice needs, what it hasn't had for a very long time, and what it still does not have, is sound governance.

But how to represent that crushing lack in a photogenic, selfy-worthy manner, in a way that doesn't bite the hands that feed the artist--well, that's a tough one.    

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Farce and Tragedy

If Venice's leaders have their way you'll see less of the above in Piazza San Marco, and more everywhere else in the city and the lagoon

History repeats itself--Marx famously claimed in his essay "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon"--"first as tragedy, then as farce."

Well, maybe in the 19th and 20th centuries. But these days it dismays me no end that both Venice, in which I've lived for six years, and America, my native land, seem so determined to invert and abbreviate Marx's old temporal two step. In Venice, and in Trump's America, decisions of great historical import appear first as outright farce, before flowering into full tragedy.

In both places the would-be satirist, no matter how clever and keen his or her sense of the absurd may be, is forever being trumped by policy makers, pursuing their disastrous follies (or crimes) in all earnestness.

In Venice, for example, the novelist, essayist and literary critic Gregory Dowling, author of a number of well-regarded novels (including this new historical one set in Venice on my To-Read list), and a resident of the city for over a quarter of a century, recently posted an account on his blog of "the gleaming new turnstiles installed at the entrances to St Mark's Square", complete with a very convincing photo of these turnstiles in the archway beneath the clock tower.

Though the post appeared on April 1, it was so well done that a number of people took the account and the photo-shopped image to be true.

But, really, an entrance fee into St Mark's? Who would take such a ridiculous idea seriously?

Well, last week, we received an answer: those sagacious folks in charge of governing the city, that's who.

Response to this new plan was swift. With one writer, Jackie Bryant, declaring "Why I'll Boycott Venice If It Charges Entry", and two others coming out in favor of the idea or similar ideas ("Why Venice Needs to Charge Entry" and "Do We Love Italy Too Much?").

Each writer makes interesting points. Each, I think, misses the single most important problem with charging an entrance fee to Piazza San Marco: It is a solution to an imaginary, or at least a secondary, problem.

Are there too many people in Piazza San Marco? Yes, sometimes there are. And on holidays or during special events the overcrowding in and around the Piazza can be so extreme as to be a public health hazard, with a real threat of deadly stampedes in the case of a panic of some kind.

But the cherished response of people like Mayor Brugnaro to such concerns about dangerous overcrowding in the historic center--their fond fantasy of spreading ever-growing crowds into less trafficked areas of town and out into the lagoon--strikes me as disingenuous if not plain cynical.

Studies have been done on the maximum number of people the city can tolerate on any given day without having its very fabric compromised, and these numbers, no more than the city or lagoon itself, are not infinitely elastic (see Chapter 3, for example, of The Venice Report, Cambridge University Press, 2009).

But a belief in such infinite elasticity is exactly what underlies the main "solution" that Brugnaro is trying to fob off on UNESCO as a serious response to that organization's concerns about the physical, environmental, social, and cultural destruction of the city and its lagoon.

An entrance fee to Piazza San Marco strikes me as a diversionary solution. One whose function is to contain the debate, providing a nicely circumscribed little topic to heatedly argue about, while the larger issue, the real issue, about the proposed exploitation of potentially every meter of the city and the lagoon remains in the shadows--where such proposals can be carried forward without international interference, or even awareness.

And, despite the best intentions of the three writers on the entrance fee proposal cited above, this diversionary solution seems, thus far, to be working rather well. Commentators are taking the most impassioned stances in regard to one or two trees--arguing in the terms set out for them by those with clear economic interests in mind--while all around them, unnoticed, the rest of the forest is brought under the ax.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Backward Glance

In the image above a gondoliere deftly backs his boat one-handed down Rio de San Barnaba in the direction of the Grand Canal. This area is perhaps most famous these days as the setting for the Katharine Hepburn film Summertime. The little antique shop owned by her love interest in the film is now a toy shop, worth checking out, and Rio de San Barnaba itself is the canal into which she takes a memorable pratfall--from which she emerged in real life with an eye infection that would bother her for the rest of her long life.

As the weather warms and some few tourists begin to treat the historic center as though it's Cabo San Lucas (yesterday I had my first sighting of the season of an undressed couple with two large bottles of beer reclining alongside the Grand Canal on the pavement of Campo San Samuele as if it were a beach), I only wish more of them knew of the possible ill effects of going for a swim in the open sewage system that is the city's canals.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The 57th Venice Biennale Prepares for Launch

I must admit that my first sight of the ongoing installation alongside the Grand Canal in Campo San Vio of what I've since learned is a 66-foot-tall gold tower created by the artist James Lee Byars (1932-1997) made me think not of art at all, but of my first visit to Europe (and Venice) as a teenager in 1982, as then President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Leonid Brezhnev tussled over the deployment of nuclear missiles located in, or directed at, Europe.

I couldn't help but think that if the economic and sexual Predator-in-Chief currently occupying the White House reached an agreement with Venice's similarly self-promoting non-resident mayor to deploy an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile or two in the historic center they'd both be inclined for them to have the kind of bling factor evident in the image above.

Once the scaffolding has been removed, however, I trust that Byar's The Golden Tower will come into its own as art, installed in a public space (as per the artist's original hopes) for the first time since its creation in 1990. It's one of the many official "Collateral Events" of this edition of the Venice Biennale.

The 57th Biennale itself opens to the public on 13 May (with previews beginning on the 10th) and runs through 26 November 2017.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Distinctive Pleasures of The Venetian Game

photo credit: Louise Stockfeld

At the recent launch party for his new novel The Venetian Game, Philip Gwynne Jones acknowledged that anyone thinking of setting a thriller in Venice immediately encounters a formidable, if not insurmountable challenge in the corpus of Donna Leon. With Inspector Brunetti on the scene, Venice is hardly in need of another Italian detective. And while that traditional protagonist of the genre, the private eye, could plausibly be imagined to make a living in the larger city of Mestre, Philip noted that there wasn't yet much of an international market for books set in Mestre.

Philip, whom I first met when we both worked as readers of Marx's Das Kapital during the run of the last Venice Biennale, came up with what I think is a brilliant solution--and no small part of the pleasure I had in reading his first novel stemmed from its inspired premise. Nathan Sutherland, the first person narrator of The Venetian Game, serves as England's Honorary Consul in Venice.

It's a pretty impressive title, but the post has lost a good deal of its luster since the grand old days of Joseph Smith, great patron of Canaletto (among many others), and one of his era's real movers and shakers. The "Honorary" signals that the position is unpaid, and Sutherland carries out its duties from his modest apartment on the Calle dei Assassini, between Campo Manin and Campo Sant'Angelo, aiding English tourists who have lost their passports, or are looking for a lunch recommendation. To pay his bills he works as a translator-- not of Dante, nor even Goldoni, but of a lawn mower manual when we first meet him.
Philip Gwynne Jones reads from his new novel at its launch party in Venice

Sutherland is a distinctly engaging narrator, his knowledge of Venice and of culture carried lightly and leavened by a dry wit, a gift for observation, and a modesty that threatens to topple at times into self doubt. His Watson, as it were, is a cantankerous cat that haunts his home office like a malevolent familiar, and is perfectly described in a way that both cat lovers and cat haters will find apt and gratifying.

Sutherland is also perfectly positioned in the social milieu of Venice for maximum dramatic and comic effect. No less than the classic private eye of someone like Raymond Chandler, he occupies a liminal place, both insider and outsider at the same time. As the traditional private dick operates at the boundaries of the law, his authority always a little dubious and extending no further than what he's able to pull off or assert in any given situation, so does Sutherland. For all the diligence with which he pursues his consular duties, it's still a bit of a confidence game. Lacking a paid position, as he also lacks a detective's badge, Sutherland must improvise a certain authority for himself in increasingly complex and perilous contexts; trying to inspire a certain confidence or respect in the minds of other even as he struggles with it in his own.

Most important, though, for this first novel is that Philip Gwynne Jones does an excellent job of vividly and astutely conjuring Venice. While the charms of the narrator and the skills of the author may assure an audience for the second Nathan Sutherland novel--due out a year from now--no small number of readers will pick up this first one because of its setting. And they won't be disappointed.

Sutherland's official duties and his own personal relationships and amusements take him all over Venice, and the Venice that the author delivers is the living, breathing local Venice which persists like a secret society amid the teeming, and all-too-often trashy, mass tourist Venice. Those who have themselves lived in Venice will recognize with pleasure the city Sutherland inhabits; those who haven't, will get a strong sense of what it's like to do so as a resident.

But as well as Sutherland knows his way around the city, this is not Brunetti's Venice, and it's Nathan's distinctive vantage point as both a knowledgeable and sometimes perplexed non-native that opens up interesting perspectives on, and insights into, the city. That makes up, in fact, much of his appeal.

The plot of the novel revolves around stolen art and there's no lack of tension and drama. (In a particularly inspired scene, Sutherland is nearly drowned not in one of Venice's famous canals but in one of its paved streets during acqua alta.) But as much as it may involve various unsavory characters up to no good, this is a book about friendship. It's a book with its own distinctive voice and perspective, but there's also something of the spirit of the classic Venice film Bread and Tulips (Pane e Tulipani) in it. As was true in that film, the appealing protagonist of A Venetian Game finally comes to establish himself in the city not through his position as consul, nor even his crime-solving, but through his bonds of affection--and the testing of those bonds--with an assorted cast of local characters.


The Venetian Game is published in the UK by Little Brown in both a paper and an e-book edition. An Italian translation is forthcoming. The book can also be found in various bookstores in Venice; most reliably in Libreria Studium, a short distance from the basilica of San Marco. It is not yet available for direct sale in the US.  

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Stage Set Venice

A section of the Grand Canal near the Rialto is lit up for a film shoot on 18 April.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

After the Storm, This Evening

A full day of rain and surprisingly cold high winds after our recent sunny days--but the early evening clearing was worth the wait.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

At the Crossroads, Tonight

The 10th Incroci di Civiltà literary festival kicked off tonight with a spirited discussion about the purposes of literature--and whether there's anything wrong with telling a "good story"--among the authors Michael Chabon, Vikram Seth and Abraham B. Yehosua. These three appeared at the Goldoni Theater as last-minute fill-ins for Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, who was called away from his scheduled appearance here by private matters in his native country of Turkey.

Chabon, Seth, and Yehoshua will each appear separately over the next three days of the festival in his previously scheduled spot, along with the festival's usual impressive array of writers from around the world. A full schedule is available here: Tickets are free, but advance reservations are required, and most of this year's events are fully booked--although if you show up at the event site 15 minutes before its scheduled start, places do sometimes become available because of cancellations.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Anywhere But Here

A screen can prove irresistible even while being rowed across the Grand Canal...

I'm aware that some people--maybe even the majority--visit blogs like this one because it's a chance to catch up on a place they'd like to be but aren't. It's certainly one of the things that led me to blogs on Venice before we actually lived here. And the thought of this gives me pause when I find myself reading a book or an e-book on a vaporetto as it passes by, say, the Doges' Palace and Piazza San Marco and Santa Maria della Salute and all the other sights I myself once longed to behold in person when I was in fact far away from them. I know that we get used to any- and everything. But should we?

Consider the image above. Let's assume the person standing in the center of the Santa Sophia traghetto in the slightly hunched screen-focused posture that defines our times is in the midst of her commute to or from work, in which the short passage across the Grand Canal is a link. Commuters everywhere take refuge in their screens, just as they previously took refuge in the printed page of newspapers, magazines, or books. And yet to spend the mere 30 seconds or so it takes to be rowed across one of the world's most famous and picturesque waterways/avenues focused on a small screen seems like a bad idea to me. 

Perhaps in this case it was some pressing matter that couldn't be delayed even half a minute. Okay. But in my own case I marvel at how the definition of "pressing" and "imperative" has expanded when it comes to screens--and I don't even have a smart phone.

And I wonder about how dramatically the constant temptation of screens, which lure us with the promise of information in "real time" or "as it happens"--something newspapers could never do--have destroyed our sense of place.

"How do you like your new apartment?" I'm asked, and though I can answer in any number of ways I'm not sure I can feel the experience of this very particular place as I once could. I trust, or hope, that I just need more time in it and that it will come.

But at the risk of stating the obvious, how different it feels to live in Venice now than it did 25 years ago. Not just because of the way Venice has changed but because of the way technology has changed our sense of place. Or maybe it's only mine.

25 years ago Venice was much more distant from the life I'd left behind in the US. And it was a much less clamorous place--not objectively, acoustically, but, well, inside my own head.

I'm afraid this threatens to turn into a long dull post--Paul Valéry, WD Howells, the French theorist Paul Virilio,* and a host of others are hovering allusively around its yet unwritten edges, and I think it best to keep them out. But isn't it odd that we pay so much to travel to distant places and then spend much of our time worrying about wi-fi access to keep us in touch with the place we've just left--and a thousand other places besides?

"To be everywhere is to be nowhere," Seneca warned in a line that took on new meaning with the coming of the internet. And to be everywhere at once never seemed especially satisfying even for the Almighty Himself; that Great Being defined by His ubiquity who, like the earliest recorded adapter of Facebook, seemed in frequent if not constant need of attention, praise and adoration.

...or on the outside seats at the back of a vaporetto

Note: * "In the opening section of The Lost Dimension [published in France way back in 1984], Virilio sets up his polemic about the 'disappearance' and 'loss' of architectonic dimension. The screen [film, tv or early computer] is an 'interface' which relies on a 'visibility without any face-to-face encounter, in which the vis-a-vis of the ancient streets disappears and is erased.' The polis, agora and forum have been replaced by the screen. ... Virilio writes: 'With the interfacing of computer terminals and video monitors, distinctions of here and there no longer mean anything.'" 
                                                            --From a 2004 essay on Virilio by Anne Friedberg


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Living Venice, and If Venice Dies

The courtyard of ex-Ospedale G.B. Giustinian, currently a health care facility

In a much-derided and parodied tweet during the last week of Carnevale, Venice's non-resident Mayor Luigi Brugnaro presented an image of a masked young woman at a private ball as conclusive proof that, contrary to what those dismayed by the steady exodus of Venetians from the historic city have suggested, Venice is a thriving city.

Given that the ball was one of those created by private commercial interests for predominantly out-of-town ticket buyers and staffed by such young women in masks, using this as an illustration of Venice's communal vigor was akin to the mayor of Anaheim, California posting an image of a young woman in a Minnie Mouse costume on Disney's "Main Street USA" attraction as evidence that the city of Anaheim had never been a more vibrant, productive place for its residents.

In fact, living Venice--what's left of it--often goes on unnoticed by visitors. It's the ever-shrinking number of stores where you can buy basic unglamorous necessities (like an ironing board); the storefront children's library near San Zaccaria (which Brugnaro wants to close); and the large old health care facilities: their interiors a combination of the centuries-old ecclesiastical and the modern institutional--the latter usually appearing much more run-down than the former.

Always in danger of being closed in whole or in part--a few years back Venice's residents rebuffed the region's attempt to shut down their already half-staffed Ospedale Civile near the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo; now, in a shamelessly overt bit of symbolism, it's the hospital's maternity department that's been targeted for the ax--these large old institutions have the feel of ghost ships: their skeletal staffs working hard to serve a populace that the mainland-based authorities have already seemed to consign to oblivion.

Yet these are the places where the city's population lives--or tries to. Where it goes when it's ill, when it's dying, or when it's preparing to deliver the next (last?) generation of Venetian residents actually born in the lagoon.

I thought of this last week while waiting in the long, windowed hallway of the ex-Ospedale G.B. Giustinian for my son to come out of his appointment. I looked outside at the courtyard that you can see pictured above, and enjoyed the sun and the scene. Until after a time the question arose that now always arises here for any resident looking upon some valued (and valuable) piece of their city's property: How long until this, too, becomes a hotel?

You see, as Salvatore Settis explains in Chapter VII of his important book If Venice Dies, every public heritage site in Italy has been officially labeled with a price as part of a legislative decree of 2010 (signed into law by the ever-enterprising Silvio Berlusconi) that turned over ownership of federal properties to individual city governments. That is, properties once held in trust and manged by the Italian government for the sake all Italian citizens, to whom it belonged, have now been gifted to cash-strapped local governments with the explicit encouragement for them to sell them off, or even to give them away, to private interests and investors. Indeed, as Settis notes, so strong is the push for local governments to liquidate public property belonging to their citizens that "another law requires local governments to furnish a yearly report on their 'real estate disposals' alongside their budgets."*

(Hence you end up with absurd situations like the one that played out here in Venice in regard to the island of Poveglia, in which Venetians/Italians joined forces to try to buy a property that literally, according to the Italian constitution, already belonged to them.)

So, looking out upon the Giustinian cloister pictured above, one finds oneself speculating on the exact shape the hotel swimming pool will take once the old well head has been moved to a spot better suited to the changed use of the property.

This is what Venetians are up against. A government quite literally occupied by private business interests, an array of recent laws (many of them, Settis argues, unconstitutional), and an economic system in which the public interest simply does not figure at all. Except, that is, insofar as the public continues to exist at all, as an impediment to profit margins and rapacious speculation: red figures on the wrong side of the balance sheet, ripe for erasure.

But it's not only what Venetians are up against. Venice serves as Settis's canary in the coal mine; in this case a rare bird, indeed, one of the world's most celebrated, whose life is threatened by the same Neoliberal forces running amok elsewhere; threatened by what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls "wantons." As Samuel Scheffler explains in his lecture The Afterlife (the basis for his book Death and the Afterlife, alluded to by Settis), "A wanton... is an agent who is not a person because his actions simply 'reflect the economy of his first-order desires,' and because he is indifferent to 'the enterprise of evaluating' those desires."

Actually, the wantons in power are not merely indifferent to "the enterprise of evaluating" those desires (the capacity for which evaluation distinguishes humans from animals) but blatantly hostile to it. Whether it's Brugnaro in Venice or Trump (Bannon) in America or Putin in Russia, wantons are forever denigrating "so-called" experts and their studies, contemptuous of science and any kind of rational, considered assessment. They sell themselves as "men of action," promising the most stupendous results--if only we give them absolute power. 

Fortunately, this is not a deal everyone is willing to make. And in Venice, as is true elsewhere, there's a determined resistance.


* Of course this kind of thing is not peculiar to Italy; it's a primary aim of the Neoliberal doctrine that holds sway in much of the world. Americans will recognize it, for example, behind the drive by Republicans to turn over tens of millions of acres of National Park lands to state governments.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

In Memoriam: Flavio Franceschet, Venice's Great Cultivator

Flavio Franceschet, in his customary straw hat, at a vendemmia lunch on San Michele in September 2013

Venice's rate of depopulation has gotten to the point that it's no exaggeration to say that the city really can't afford to lose a single resident, either through relocation or death. But the loss of certain residents such as Flavio Franceschet, who died at the beginning of last week and was laid to rest yesterday on the cemetery island of San Michele, tears a particularly large hole in the social and cultural fabric of the living city.

Trained as an architect, Flavio was a popular and influential teacher at la Scuola Media Statale Pier Fortunaro Calvi. But this was just one important role among the many he played in the life of the city. He was also instrumental, for example, in the transformation of a large unused greenhouse at the edge of the public gardens (originally constructed in 1894 as a tepidarium) into La Serra dei Giardini, a cultural and educational center whose exhibitions, programs, and nursery make it a valuable resource for both residents and visitors, and whose pleasant grounds and cafe offer an appealing respite from the stones of Venice.

Mourners fill the cloister of San Michele yesterday

He was also the founder and president of Laguna nel bicchiere, a non-profit association dedicated to the re-invigoration and cultivation of forgotten vineyards around the lagoon: such as the one within the old cloister walls of the cemetery island of San Michele. This is where I first met Flavio, during one unforgettable vendemmia (grape harvest) I wrote more than one post about in September of 2013.

A lot could be written about Laguna nel bicchiere, which at one and the same time was both all about the wine and about so much more than the wine. As was the case in every association or program or event that Flavio created or was involved in, there was both a profound commitment to tradition, to being deeply grounded in the oftentimes ancient culture of the thing, along with an equally profound commitment to the creation of something new and vibrant and now. In Laguna nel bicchiere the past was retrieved as something that could become a vital part of both the present and a future. For all his knowledge of the past, I never detected anything nostalgic about Flavio. He always seemed quite alive in the present, where he was busy cultivating not just grapes, olives, and gardens, but a well-grounded sense of community that seemed to offer the last best hope for a living future in Venice and its lagoon.
A handout from yesterday's service

I noticed this broader project of cultivation in everything he did; it informed the seasonal feste he created in Campo Bragora, as well as the educational program around the cultivation of the lagoon's olive groves that Laguna nel bicchiere developed along with Slow Food Venezia. A program which brought the city's school children to olive groves on the islands of San Servolo and Sant' Elena, and involved them in the year-long process that would eventually result in olive oil, whose sales proceeds would be donated to fund gardens in Africa.

In fact, Flavio had been at my son's elementary school last Monday to talk to students about the cultivation of olives, and was scheduled to meet them two days later in the olive grove of San Servolo.

But on Tuesday he suddenly fell and ill died in the offices of the Comune, where he'd gone to see about extending the agreement with the city whereby the vineyard and old cantina on San Michele would continue to be cultivated by Laguna nel bicciere for educational and community purposes. Which, alas, is not assured in a city where the interests of private outside developers usually trump those of resident citizens. Indeed, the predatory, commercially-minded atmosphere of City Hall was why some people at the funeral yesterday referred, not entirely in jest, to Flavio as a martyr on behalf of Venice's residents and culture.

But the mood was mostly celebratory yesterday, with live music and song, and speeches, and even some juggling. The turnout, not surprisingly, was large. So large, in fact, that before the 11 am start time ACTV (which runs the vaporetti) had to run a Corsa Bis--a special Linea-1-style vaporetto service from Fondamenta Nove to San Michele--just for the mourners. Just as it does for special events such as the Feste della Salute or Redentore, or a Venezia Lega Pro soccer game.

The cloister of San Michele, yesterday

One of Flavio's two adult sons recalled that his father used to tell him when he was a child that a setback or difficulty or source of frustration was like a gioco, a game, which it was our challenge to figure out. Life could also be like a battle, but the point was to keep finding a way forward, attentive to and alive in the world around us, with good cheer, and openness, and the pleasure that comes with working with others. 

Laguna nel bicchiere, along with other projects Flavio created, will continue without him. Though it won't be easy, as Flavio was--as many people remarked yesterday--un personaggio. What in English might be called a "character;" and so much himself, and singular, and knowledgeable, and insightful, and amiably persuasive, as to be irreplaceable. Among the things I admired most about Flavio was that he somehow managed to be a commanding presence without being in any way domineering. He wasn't showy or overbearing, dictatorial or egocentric. He was a reassuring and thoughtful presence, spirited, creative, and effortlessly committed, in whose company good things became possible. In the last couple of years I kept missing Laguna nel bicchiere activities I'd intended to go to, but I was always happy to run into Flavio in the street around town. The mere sight of him, a few words, would remind me of living Venice, and of those like him who willingly, fervently, bear so much of the burden of keeping it alive, and of imagining--and advocating for--its future. Yesterday at San Michele, in a celebration of his life, there was a widespread commitment to pick up where he left off.


A complete list of my blog posts on Laguna nel bicchiere and other activities created by Flavio gives a hint of his importance to the life of the city:

Laguna nel bicchiere:

Community festivals in Campo Bragora:

An empty bottle of Laguna nel bicchiere's "Barefoot Archangels" wine with memorial candles in the cantina of San Michele, yesterday